Why the FA Cup third round has never been more important

At Chesterfield’s Warminster Road training ground, they’ve been extra careful with the pitches over a chaotic Christmas period because they know the Stamford Bridge grass on Saturday will be so much better than what they’re used to, and the players need to adjust. Even in the modern game, such differences do still persist. So do traditional feelings about the FA Cup. The Chesterfield squad are giddy at the prospect of going to the home of the European champions on Saturday.

“It sounds a bit surreal,” manager Rowe said this week about his team’s trip to Chelsea. “We are back on the map, that is the most important thing.”

They’re also back on primetime TV, as are Swindon Town. Staff at the County Ground have been ensuring every corner of the stadium is spotless. Many are just marvelling at the idea of “the best team in the world” – and arguably the greatest manager in history – coming to their ground given the Covid situation as they host Manchester City. Or at least that is how they will feel until kick-off. The players will then launch themselves into it, the local fans roaring them on.

There are few feelings like it in football. That is something that became achingly apparent at clubs like Marine and Chorley last season. The restrictions necessary for Covid denied them the spirit of life that comes with a big FA Cup tie involving a smaller club.

Yet ironically the events of the last two years should help to restore a sparkle to the competition, and especially this most compelling of rounds. That doesn’t just apply to the pandemic. There’s also the Super League, controversial takeovers, and so many other stories that foster the feeling the elite game is just getting away from us, going to some super deluxe level cordoned off and separated from the rest of the game.

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The FA Cup third round now, more than ever before, is the great riposte to this. It is the intoxicating antidote. It has actually never been more important, for the game as a whole.

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If so much of the last two years has been about people being apart, this brings everyone together. If so many of the arguments against the Super League and new Champions League were about the elite elevating themselves above everyone else, this brings them back down to earth, and to some properly mucky pitches.

That is why, for all the debate about the modern FA Cup, the third round remains genuinely unique. It is the finest distillation of the opportunity inherent to such a preciously low-scoring sport. Anyone can meet anyone, an open draw opening minds, with the very chaos of it all ensuring anything can happen. This is what really sets up today. It is the anticipation – the maybe, the potential. Few sporting events offer a similar sense of opportunity and almost no other football events do.

Chesterfield fans celebrate during their FA Cup second round victory

It will this year see League Two Swindon greet City, non-league Kidderminster Harriers host a club five divisions above them in Reading, National League Yeovil Town prepare themselves for Bournemouth, as well as Chesterfield going to Chelsea and Morecambe to Tottenham Hotspur.

For all else going in the game right now, it is worth considering what the mood will be in some of those dressing rooms in the minutes before the games begin.

They will envisage the chance of writing themselves into history, to go with a joyous list led by Colchester United against Leeds United in 1971, Hereford United against Newcastle United in 1972, Sutton United against Coventry City in 1989… and maybe now something in 2022? Non-league Lincoln’s elimination of Burnley in 2017 was probably the most recent big upset, after Bradford City’s comeback against Premier League-leading Chelsea in 2015. We are arguably due another, and that opportunity feels as great as ever this year.

That chance of history is still changed by the modern game, more so than ever this year. Premier League clubs have been told they must fulfil this weekend’s fixtures even amid the Covid chaos, and even if it means sending out academy players. Lower-league clubs like Swindon have meanwhile been criticised for upping ticket prices and even entering into deals with “global cryptocurrency betting and gaming operator” partners. Many naturally see such ties as bigger chances to cash in than ever before, and with greater need than ever before. The game is financially stretched to a historically unprecedented degree, as all of the dynamics around the Super League made painfully clear.

That has a real effect on the football, and it is why we so often hear the magic has gone. There’s just too much reality. With so many of these ties, the TV crews and supporters will turn up in the excited hope of an upset – the crisp winter weather adding to the feeling something is in the air – only for a second-string Premier League team to be 2-0 up inside 19 minutes. The rabbit very much goes back in the hat, people change the channel. The list of famous upsets alone indicates enough. There haven’t been as many in the last decade. They are statistically harder to come by.

You can say the same about classic “cup teams”, those frustratingly exciting sides good enough on any given day but not strong enough over the course of a season to really challenge for a title. You don’t really have Arsenals of the late 70s or Tottenham Hotspur of the 80s. They’ve been swallowed up by the size of the big clubs, with most cup wins now just an extension of extended campaigns to get into the Champions League.

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There is a twist to that, though. It does ensure the cup wins that deviate from that, like Leicester City’s last year or even Arsenal in 2020, bring more celebration. A Wembley victory for Leeds United, Everton, even Tottenham Hotspur would mean much more to them than another Premier League would to Manchester City. It also ensures any upsets should be more special because they are more difficult.

That isn’t always the thinking but the current football world should change the mindset around the FA Cup again. The discussion is often how the competition has lost its meaning. You only have to watch one of the wins this weekend to decide that for yourself. There is an argument that, for different reasons, it means more than it has done for a very long time. The playing field has changed again, and that doesn’t just apply to Chesterfield’s training ground.

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